The death of Osama bin Laden and growing pressure from Congress to shrink the U.S. footprint and expense in Afghanistan have given new impetus to those within the Obama administration who favor a swift reduction of U.S. forces, according to senior administration officials and leading lawmakers.
These members of the administration initially pressed for an approach that emphasized the targeted killing of insurgent leaders, rather than the broader, troop-heavy counterinsurgency strategy that President Obama ultimately embraced. They intend to argue in upcoming debates that the al-Qaeda leader’s demise is proof that counterterrorism is a more reliable and cost-effective tactic for the next phase of the nearly decade-old war.
The life and death of Osama bin Laden
Even before the death of bin Laden, the confluence of the national debt crisis, the 2012 election, and events on the ground had bolstered arguments that the administration’s plans to remake Afghanistan’s government and economy went too far beyond the goal of safeguarding U.S. security.
Current expenditures of $10 billion a month are “fundamentally unsustainable” and the administration urgently needs to clarify both its mission and exit plan, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) said Tuesday.
A senior administration official involved in Afghanistan policy insisted that “there will be no re-litigation” of the strategy that has brought 30,000 more U.S. troops and hundreds of additional U.S. diplomats to the war zone since early last year. “We’re on a clear path set by the president,” the official said.
But the official said the killing of bin Laden “may have a significant effect going forward on the setting of milestones and the pace and slope” of the U.S. troop withdrawal scheduled to take place between July and the end of 2014.
Administration officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal thinking, emphasized that Obama and his national security team have not begun discussions on the withdrawal nor has the military made a recommendation.
At a Tuesday hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee he chairs, Kerry said he did not advocate a “unilateral, precipitous withdrawal” of U.S. forces. But, he said, “I do think that we ought to be working towards achieving the smallest footprint possible.”
Kerry is a longtime friend and former Senate colleague of Vice President Biden, who led the administration faction arguing that counterterrorism was a more reliable and cost-effective tactic against al-Qaeda. The senator from Massachusetts is often a leading indicator of administration thinking. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates — whose departments and personnel have carried out the counterinsurgency strategy — advised in favor of Obama’s ultimate decision.
“One threshold really needs to be both stated and restated as we consider the options,” Kerry said. “And that is that it is fundamentally unsustainable to continue spending $10 billion a month on a massive military operation with no end in sight.”